DIR: David Dobkin • WRI: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque • PRO: David Dobkin, Susan Downey, David Gambino • DOP: Janusz Kaminski • ED: Mark Livolsi • DES: Mark Ricker • MUS: Thomas Newman • CAST: Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard
The trailers for family drama/legal thriller The Judge make it look like an afternoon melodrama but it’s not. It’s actually about four afternoon melodramas running simultaneously, all of which have managed to bag the over-qualified Robert Downey Jr. Downey Jr., best known as Tony Stark, a rich, hyper-articulate asshole superhero who wears fancy sunglasses, plays Hank Palmer, a rich, hyper-articulate asshole lawyer who wears fancy sunglasses. When the Palmer matriarch passes away, Hank, ace Chicago defense attorney, must leave his expensive big-city pad and sterile marriage and return to his small-town childhood home in Carlinville, Indiana, the kind of place where a ‘blueberry festival’ is a legitimate cultural event.
There he reminisces with his brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a budding baseball star hobbled by a teenage accident, and Dale (Jeremy Strong), who has one of those vague movie mental impairments, and exchanges stilted small-talk with the father and eponymous magistrate Joseph (Robert Duvall). Things get complicated when Joseph is accused of running down a man he sentenced years ago and, whaddayaknow, Hank has to reconcile old grievances and defend him in court. Downey Jr. and Duvall give solid performances, the latter displaying his knack for stoic, old-school masculinity, but they deserve better than this round of soggy award-bait.
Nothing in The Judge is suggested when it could be glaringly signposted. After the funeral, Joseph is left alone at his wife’s grave, conversing with her in the way grieving spouses often do, and promises her that he’ll be back ‘tomorrow’ and, after a small pause, adds ‘and the day after that’. The second clause is totally redundant, and pushes the dialogue from the straightforwardly humane into the cliche. It’s a minor example, but the unwillingness to simply imply and then let the audience do their interpretative work clogs up the whole film. Nearly every story and character beat in the film is pitched at least one level higher than it needs to be: Joseph isn’t just sick, he’s the kind of sick where he pukes in the toilet and shits on the bathroom floor; Hank doesn’t just rekindle the spark with his old flame (Vera Farmiga), he finds out she has a college-age daughter who may or may not bear a family resemblance. It’s a lot of balls in the air.
When the film settles down, and has its two stars just hash it out, it’s a perfectly fine, if well-trodden, drama about the complicated resentments and bruised affection of father-son relationships, but director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) is more interested in playing to the galleries. The rush from one Dramatic Moment to the next means that there’s not enough room for its personalities to properly react and ground things in the rhythm of an ongoing and emotionally realistic story. And boy do the filmmakers love their drama. Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque’s screenplay bounces from one secret revelation and unearned catharsis to the next, Thomas Newman’s score lays on the piano and strings and Janusz Kaminski shoots the courtroom scenes like it’s Christ himself on trial. Talk about leading the jury.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Judge is released 17th October 2014